“I keep the positives of science into focus.”
Prof. Marianne Bronner, a professor of biology at the California Institute of Technology, has recently held a lecture at the Cells-in-Motion Cluster of Excellence (CiM). She had been invited by the “Women in Science” network, a group of PhD students from CiM labs. The network members Cecilia Grimaldi, Kim Joana Westerich, and Divyanshu Malhotra have talked to the biologist about impostor’s syndrome, mentorship strategies, and gender bias in science.
Prof. Bronner, could you tell us what is your ultimate aim as a scientist? What is the overreaching question that you want to answer?
When I was a graduate student, I fell in love with the neural crest and have continued to work on this for my entire career. The overarching question is one step back: how does a single cell, the fertilized egg, give rise to a complex organism? That question itself is so complex that I chose to address it in a simpler system, that is neural crest cells. I like these cells because they give rise to many different cell types, just like the fertilized egg does. I would like to understand how a cell decides what to become, how it ends in the right place, and what causes it to differentiate into an appropriate cell type. In addition, to their ability to form many cell types, neural crest cells are also highly migratory. So, you can try to understand how they reach the correct position where they properly differentiate according to the context.
What stage of your career played the most important role in shaping who you are and how you do science?
That is a tough question because I think all stages of your career are important. What perhaps helped me the most was when I finally developed confidence in myself. That happened after I got tenure. For the longest time, I had “imposter’s syndrome”, and I always thought somebody would find out that I was not good enough. I finally got to a point in my life when I started realizing that, maybe I am good enough. Then things became easier, and I felt much smarter. I would say that happened around my mid-30s.
Do you think that this importer’s syndrome is more women-specific?
No, it is certainly not female-specific. Many people feel that way, both men and women. The difference is that men don’t admit it, and therefore they get over it more quickly. Women question themselves more and I think this is partially related to how they are raised. Regardless of how wonderful and supportive your parents are, your peers tend to make you feel that you should be in certain gender roles. And that is the category into which most women fall or at least I do.
What professional or personal lesson has been the most difficult but at the end the most rewarding that you have learned?
Having children is the first thing that comes to my mind. People often worry about how to balance family and career, but in my case, I can say that I've learned a lot about how to run my lab from having a family. I have always been a very well-organized person but having children made me super organized! Motherhood taught me how to work very efficiently and to take advantage of any small period of time that I had. I also developed a system where I made a list of things I need to do. A lot of times people would think that the most important activities on their to-do list should be given highest priority and accomplished first. But when I look at my list, I identify what things I can do most quickly and take care of those first, regardless of their importance. Then my list is shorter and that gives me a boost in a way. So, I think that having children helped me to be better organized. If I am a good mother to my group, then things run smoothly and the lab functions well as a family.
What are the greatest challenges in mentorship, how as a mentor do you know when you have succeeded with your mentee, and do you see differences in mentoring women and men?
I think the most significant challenge is recognizing that everybody is different, so there is no one-fit to everyone for mentorship. People have different abilities, and often you don't know when they come into lab who will be the best student or the best postdoc. Being successful is a learning experience and many things go into it. What you must keep in mind is that not everybody will be equally successful. My mentorship strategy is trying to assess a person's strengths and weaknesses and helping them be the best scientists they can be. For example, whereas some postdocs from my lab take faculty positions at institutions that are primarily devoted to research, others have gone on and gotten jobs at colleges that are primarily teaching oriented or in biotech, and they are happy and good at their jobs. If I get my mentees to be successful with whatever matches their skills, that to me is a good outcome. Regarding differences between mentoring men or women, I can't say it is different between genders more than it is different from individual to individual.
Have you had a role model who gave you a great piece of advice that you would like to pass on to young scientists?
I had no mentors at all. I switched labs in grad school and my Ph.D. supervisor decided to leave science when I finished my doctoral studies. So, I had to build my own little community and I mainly learned just by doing. Maybe that is why afterwards it was so important for me to help other people so that they didn't have to go through what I had. On the other hand, I had somebody from a distance that I could look up to: Nicole Le Douarin. She was ‘the queen of the neural crest’ and a woman in science at a time when there weren't that many. When I heard her talk, I thought she was fantastic, and I wanted to be just like her.
Do you feel you face any unique challenges as a woman in science?
Being a scientist can undoubtedly be more challenging for a woman. People tend to underestimate you and the only way to overcome that is simply to be better. Interestingly, I had a real challenge two years ago when I was running a search committee, which was almost exclusively composed of female faculty. We went through the applications and identified a female candidate who we wanted to hire. She was not as good on paper as some of the other applicants, but we considered her work extremely original. When we presented her case to the faculty, it got slammed down in a way that I and others felt was discriminatory. There was a clear gender bias because we were women presenting another woman. I am certain it would not have happened if we had introduced a man or if a man had presented the female candidate. Importantly, the case got a lot of attention in the Department because it happened at a time when a visiting committee was brought in to review the Department. I brought up the issue, and the visiting committee was very supportive and acknowledged that implicit bias is widespread. I find it very distressing that even now at an age when women are doing better you still face these problems and run into an ‘old-boy-network.’
Do you think there is an underrepresentation of women at senior levels of science? If yes, why do you feel this statistic exists and how can it be remedied?
There are many women at senior levels in Developmental Biology, but this is only a small field. In general, underrepresentation is an issue, and there are many ways to address it. One of the problems is that we don't have enough role models in science. It is inspiring for women to see other women succeeding. The more women appear at senior levels, the more women will continue in their career path. As an example, if you attend a meeting and half of the women are speakers, then the women will notice. Inviting more female speakers is therefore very critical. If you see a program with a majority of men, even though the particular research field has many good female scientists, you should directly address the organizers and openly ask them for the reason they did not invite more women. Raising awareness always helps.
Including more women in scientific programs and encouraging committees to consider more female candidates for PI positions is a good measure, too. It is in fact required in the US to report the representation of women and minorities considered in the selection process.
What I further consider important is to know at what level women drop out of science and where they go. While the level of graduate students is equal among males and females, there is a significant drop off at more senior levels such as assistant professorship, and we often do not know where women are going instead. However, I do not consider it a failure not to pursue academia. When women choose to go to the private or industrial sector, they seize a good opportunity, and it does not mean we failed to promote women.
I believe we have to be good role models for female scientists, promote science and also the fun aspects of our career. I really enjoy being a scientist and projecting the positive aspects of that is something we as scientists should do.